Dairy farmers are officially on the 2017 legislative docket.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley presented a relief funding bill to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
“It’s hard to imagine drought after all the moisture we’ve had over the last couple months,” Bradley said. But he added that after a lack of rain, a shortage in forage crops and a second year of dropping milk prices, “dairy farmers and their herds were totally adversely affected.”
State dairy licensing and permitting data show that for more than 10 months in 2016, New Hampshire’s 123 farms shipping milk were reduced to 115.
On Tuesday, Bradley brought with him an amendment to the bill, proposing to simplify the process and appropriate $2 million to be divided among licensed milk producers.
The original version of the bill, written in large part by Weare Republican and Dairy Farmers Task Force Committee member Rep. Neal Kurk, proposed a relief funding formula calculated on a farm-by-farm basis.
“I felt it was too complicated and too cumbersome,” Bradley said.
The $2 million in the amendment, if approved, would be given to the state’s Milk Producers Emergency Relief Fund with the intent of being expended by March 15. The amendment, as written, requires the milk producer to remain in business through 2022 – otherwise, the relief funds have to be repaid.
More than a half dozen people testified at Tuesday’s public hearing. All but one person supported the bill, with some minor tweaks: include goat farmers among dairy producers, and, if possible, appropriate more money.
The only opponent was Greg Moore of the national lobbying organization Americans for Prosperity.
“If it is disaster relief it definitely is inequitable disaster relief,” he said. “This singles out an industry to receive support from taxpayers.”
And if the issue is about milk prices, Moore said it’s a bad idea for the state to get involved there, since milk prices are set – and supposed to be insured – by the federal government.
“Fundamentally – obviously – the best change would happen at the federal government,” he said. He also suggested the dairy industry should respond to market forces.
Advocates have argued that dairy farmers are restricted by federal control of the market, and that federal government solutions – namely, a dairy insurance program included in the Farm Bill in 2014 – haven’t worked.
Sen. Dan Feltes wondered if the federal government would be able to get milk to New Hampshire in the event of a disaster, like the ice storm of 2008, if local farms were gone.
New Hampshire Farm Bureau President Denis Ward didn’t think so.
“I wouldn’t rely on the federal government,” he said. “Milk isn’t the only food – you want as much food grown in New Hampshire for those situations as much as you can.”
He added that the farm bureau was working on the federal level to better protect dairy farmers in the future.
“But that doesn’t protect them right now,” he said. “They’re hurting right now.”
As for supporting the dairy industry over any other, Ward, who represents all types of farmers, said his organization hopes for relief for growers, too, but recognizes the unique situation dairy farmers are in.
Dairy’s contributions to the agriculture economy, and the inability for farmers to stop feeding and milking their cows in response to the market, Ward said, make them good candidates for aid.
“There is no other comparison for dairy farmers to any other business,” he said. “We’re supporting this and getting behind this dairy relief bill 100 percent.”
(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)